Story: Ralfe, Catherine Hester

Page 1 - Biography

Ralfe, Catherine Hester

1831/1832?–1912

Dressmaker, teacher, storekeeper, housekeeper, diarist

This biography was written by Ellen Ellis and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 2, 1993

Catherine Hester Ralfe, whose reminiscences vividly illustrate the lives of colonial women, was born at Bantry Bay, County Cork, Ireland, probably in 1831 or 1832. She was the daughter of Ann Susannah Lamothe and her husband, Pilcher Ralfe, a naval officer. Both parents died when Catherine was a child. It appears that she grew up mainly in England with her extended family, and suffered from periods of ill health throughout childhood. In 1866, after several years' housekeeping for her uncle, C. S. Hawthorne, Catherine Ralfe followed two of her three brothers, John Henry and Pilcher Frederick, to New Zealand, where they had emigrated in the early 1860s. She arrived at Lyttelton, Canterbury, on the Leichardt in August 1866.

During the voyage Catherine Ralfe acted as guardian and tutor to two young children, Jane and Robert Colquist. From her arrival she supported her brother Henry and his family when he was unemployed by selling handiwork she had made on the voyage and by tatting. In 1867 the family moved to Okarito, Westland, where Henry had been appointed schoolmaster. Catherine used the sewing machine given to her as a farewell present to make a dress; she 'demered never having learnt' but 'got more till at last I was fully employed in this way'. Several years later she became a teacher at the isolated Five Mile Beach settlement, living in a deserted miner's hut; she continued her needlework 'doing it before and after school hours'. After this, she and Henry set up a private school in Ross in 1873 and she also took evening classes for young women. In 1873, after Henry's death, the community rallied round to help support the children, and enough money was donated for Catherine to set up a fancy-goods store in Hokitika. When it was not successful she returned to dressmaking; her sister-in-law, Anna Maria, 'the Mater', later supported the family as a music teacher, and Catherine, called 'Aunt Katie', acted as the caregiver and housekeeper to eight children.

Catherine Ralfe's first holiday was taken in 1882 in Taranaki with her brother Pilcher and his family. He became prominent in the co-operative dairy industry and was later the mayor of Stratford. By 1896 Catherine, Anna Maria and those children who had not yet married had all moved to Taranaki. Catherine also spent time in Wanganui as a housekeeper for the manager of the gasworks. She later continued to support herself by teaching and knitting and other fancywork, but often found herself with 'only half a loaf in the house'. It appears her final years were spent with a favourite nephew, Spencer, an orchardist, in Ashhurst north of Palmerston North, where she died on 5 April 1912.

About 1896 Catherine Ralfe set down her reminiscences. They give meagre details of her early life, but vividly describe the hardships and beauties of the 96-day voyage to New Zealand – the height of the waves made her feel insignificant – and her initial responses to a new country. She writes of the bush and birds, and the family and social life of the West Coast mining communities at Hokitika, Okarito and Ross. The reminiscences also document the realities of the lives of colonial women: Catherine Ralfe's as a single woman and that of her sister-in-law as a wife and mother. Both lives centred on the family and domestic duties: making do by taking in boarders; child-bearing and infant deaths; child-rearing and finding jobs as the family grew up; marriages and grandchildren. Catherine Ralfe herself appears as a devout and respectable Christian who, in spite of little means and poor health, lived a full and useful life in a supportive family network.